Thomson Essays Offer Portrait Of Critic With Edge

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Virgil Thomson and Tim Page
From the book, a 1987 photo of Virgil Thomson talking about music with critic Tim Page, editor of the new volume.
(Photo by Bonnie Geller-Geld)
By Paul Hyde

Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940-1954, edited by Tim Page. The Library of America. (1178 pages, $45)

The fiery Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini once unknowingly passed the music critic Virgil Thomson in a hall at NBC. When informed that Thomson had just walked by, Toscanini reportedly said, “Where is he? I’ll slappa him in the face!”

Classical music critics, a disappearing tribe, rarely provoke such wrath these days. As Toscanini’s outburst underscores, Thomson possessed strong musical opinions — and those opinions mattered.

'Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940-1954'
Thomson wrote spirited assessments of Barber, Bernstein, Britten,
Copland, Stravinsky, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Stern.

The distinguished Library of America series has collected Thomson’s writings from the New York Herald Tribune into one 1,100-page volume, edited by the Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page. Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940-1954 is an indispensable addition to a classical music lover’s library. In lucid, elegant prose, Thomson detailed the musical life of America’s cultural capital through reviews he produced three times a week for the Tribune. Thomson, a respected composer himself (as he was happy to mention), also wrote longer Sunday pieces, offering keen insights into the music and musicians of the day.

The result is a spirited chronicle of a golden era when the New York classical music scene was dominated by conducting legends such as Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Beecham, Stokowski and a young Leonard Bernstein. Among the musicians who make an appearance in these pages are pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein and violinists Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern.

What a delight it is also to encounter premieres or early assessments of works by Barber, Bernstein, Britten, Copland and Stravinsky. Thomson’s writings focus mostly on New York, although he offers some lively dispatches from other parts of the U.S. as well as Paris, Berlin and other international locales.  His voice is laconic, authoritative, civilized, and cosmopolitan. Though he wasn’t trained as a newsman, Thomson, like a good journalist, favored short, graceful sentences and avoided technical jargon. His opinions might be as idiosyncratic as George Bernard Shaw’s but never his prose style. In characteristic straightforward fashion, he judged Britten’s opera Peter Grimes to be a “success. … It is varied, interesting, and solidly put together. It works. … a rattling good repertory melodrama.” (Thomson, one imagines, would have flourished in the age of Twitter.)

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)

This collection, published with the support of the Virgil Thomson Foundation, includes four of Thomson’s books, all long out of print: The Musical Scene, The Art of Judging Music, Music Right and Left, and Music Reviewed. These are supplemented with a generous selection of Thomson’s heretofore uncollected writings.

Thomson: Music Chronicles, 1940-1954 is superbly edited by Page, who has included helpful notes, an extensive index and comprehensive chronology of the composer’s life. Even more useful are 85 pages of brief biographies, pithy and insightful, of the conductors, singers and other musicians who make an appearance in Thomson’s writings.

Thomson, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1896 but traveled widely, emerges from these pages as the model of what the cultural historian Joseph Horowitz called the “maverick critic,” whose views are highly personal, unpredictable and, yes, even questionable at times – such as when Thomson, in his first review for the Tribune, dismissed Sibelius’ Second Symphony as “vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description.”

Thomson could be devastatingly blunt about both music and musicians. Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica “goes on and on without anything happening musically that is in any way memorable.”  And  unlike other music critics, Thomson did not shy away from taking on the standard orchestral repertoire. “There is a pious theatricality about all of Bruckner’s symphonies,” he wrote in 1945. “They rest one; they are perfect to daydream to. Of real originality, they have, I think, very little to offer.”

Virgil Thomson, composing, in bed. (virgilthomson.org)
Virgil Thomson, multi-tasking. (virgilthomson.org)

Similarly, Thomson deemed a 1945 performance by the celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin to be “mostly a disaster.” He opined that pianist Claudio Arrau seemed “shallow” while Horowitz was “the master of musical distortion” for his showy exaggeration.  Thomson could praise with not-so-faint damns. A violin recital by Heifetz “is luxury expressed in music. The fact remains, however, that there is about its machine-tooled finish and empty elegance something more than a little vulgar. (This is) silk-underwear music.”

Thomson could love and hate with equal fervor, often seemingly at the same time. Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” he wrote, “has more faults than any work I have ever known by a reputable composer. There are faults of taste, faults of technique, and grave miscalculations about theatrical effect. It remains, none the less, a beautiful piece of music and a deeply moving play for the lyric theater.” Strauss’ Salome, meanwhile, “is a modernistic sculpture made of cheap wood, glass, rocks, cinders, papier-mache, sandpaper, and bits of old fur. The material elements of it are without nobility; but the whole makes a composition, and the composition speaks.”

Thomson could also praise lavishly and occasionally gush, if sparingly. There’s a glowing assessment of a Massachusetts community orchestra, in which the critic reflects on the nobility of such endeavors. Thomson also took great delight in the early manifestations of historically informed performance. He called cellist Pablo Casals “a gem and pinnacle of music-making in our time.” In a poignant tribute to pianist William Kapell, who died at age 31 in a 1953 plane crash, Thomson muses that “our loss, music’s loss, is irreparable.”

Along with the great names of the past are several lesser-known figures in Thomson’s work. Who remembers the young violinist Ginette Neveu, who died a tragic death at age 30 in a 1949 plane crash? Thomson thought her “a great artist” … “the finest, from every point of view, of the younger European artists whom we have had the pleasure of hearing here since the war.”

Unlike today’s music journalists, Thomson never interviewed others. He was always a critic. What mattered was Thomson’s own opinion, even when he was writing obituaries of classical musicians.

Thomson with his contemporaries - Leonard Bernstein, Roy Harris, William Schuman and Aaron Copland
Thomson with some of his contemporaries – Leonard Bernstein,
Walter Piston, William Schuman and Aaron Copland.

Thomson’s maverick style contrasted notably with the mainstream emphasis of his New York Times counterpart, Olin Downes, a critic who sought to express the opinion of the multitudes — and who incidentally loved Sibelius. Thomson, for his part, “relished being in the minority,” as Horowitz has written. Unlike Downes, Thomson didn’t shy away from using the pronoun “I” and took pride in his highly subjective opinions. He felt little need to cut his conscience to fit the prevailing musical fashion.  For example, Thomson didn’t fall prey to the mid-century Toscanini cult. He often took the conductor to task, which explains Toscanini’s belligerence toward the critic. While acknowledging Toscanini’s popularity, Thomson also remarked in 1941: “Toscanini seems not to care what kind of noise comes out of his musicians’ efforts.”

Thomson’s biases provoked not a little anger in the classical music community. The composer William Schuman acknowledged Thomson’s influence but criticized him for being “capricious,” adding, “He favored everything French. You can’t say that Thomson didn’t make a sizable contribution … but it was not balanced.”

Thomson’s stinging opinions ranged widely. Motivated by a high-minded concern for artistic excellence, he wrote occasionally about the business of classical music. He made a sharp distinction between “cultural music” and “simple entertainment” (i.e., pop music) produced by “show business” or “the amusement trades.”  Thomson criticized “timid” leaders who refused to take risks or were motived solely by the “box office.” He excoriated Metropolitan Opera impresario Rudolf Bing for his conservative tastes in programming. Noting Bing’s reluctance to embrace Alban Berg’s then-controversial Wozzeck, Thomson said, “If the Met is afraid of attempts at political or religious censorship, then I am ashamed of it.” (One doesn’t have to work hard to imagine how Thomson would have reacted to the Met’s recent Death of Klinghoffer controversy.)

Did Thomson, as a composer, bend the rules of journalistic objectivity? Yes, and cheerfully so. In a 1950 review of three Texas orchestras, he reserved his highest praise for the ensemble he himself had conducted. In a 1953 piece, meanwhile, Thomson numbered himself among “the chief American composers just before World War II.” In an earlier essay, Thomson described himself as a “founding father” of Neo-Romanticism. Using newspaper space to toot your own horn certainly is frowned upon by traditional journalists. Today, however, an age when reporters are encouraged to promote their “personal brand” and develop a “fan base,” one suspects Thomson would fit right in.

Today, serious classical music criticism is disappearing from America’s newspapers, though still surviving in a few metropolitan areas and smaller outposts or migrating to the web.  Meanwhile, some doomsayers argue that classical music is, for the most part, dead. Those challenging circumstances provide all the more reason to cherish Thomson’s engaging chronicle of his colorful and vibrant musical times.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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